Martin Hawver
Guest columnist
The Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority is one of those agencies that doesn’t often come up in discussion of how Kansas government works.
It is very basically where the state puts juveniles who have committed crimes, generally grown-up style crimes that would land most of us who are old enough to legally order a drink in prison.
And, for more than a decade, it’s been almost a social service-type agency. They’re children we’re locking up.
But after that long social services orientation of the agency, Gov. Sam Brownback is starting to turn it into what it probably ought to have been from the get-go—a corrections system.
The details of the operation of the JJA came to light in a recent Legislative Post Audit report that showed inside the juvenile correctional facility in Topeka, there were doors unlocked and propped open, guards who didn’t check in on prisoners and even a set of keys missing.
Does that sound like a correctional facility? Or, more like an activities center?
Oh, but these are juveniles. Well, yes, the 200-plus boys and 20-plus girls at the facility are young, probably still educable and able to be rehabilitated so that they don’t bother people when they serve their terms…but they need to be safe while that’s going on.
That wasn’t happening. There were suicide attempts, fights and sexual assaults, all going on because of the general attitude that these are children we’re dealing with. There were employees who didn’t meet the qualifications for their jobs, there were employees who were able to bring contraband into the Topeka facility, and there were employees who had criminal records that should have disqualified them for duty, the audit reported.
That’s changing. The facility is essentially being changed from, according to the audit, an apparently pretty loosely run social service facility into a correctional facility. And it’s Brownback’s doing.
It’s one of those examples of a dramatic change in the outlook and goals of a new governor. It’s an example of the end of that 16-year period in which Kansas governors generally didn’t change much, and a new guy in town is taking a look at how things have been working, and whether they’re working right.
Brownback put a career correctional officer in charge of JJA, rather than social-services types. And she’s already starting to tighten things up.
There are some “government-type” problems that need to be solved, such as low wages for the guards that means there’s too much turnover to have a really experienced workforce, and that’s a budget deal.
But there’s an attitude change in the JJA, one that Brownback looked for and found; it sounds like the management is finally right for the mission of a correctional institution. It sounds like the youths there might soon be safe enough that they can pay attention to their rehabilitation and education, not just keeping themselves from harm.
There have been a lot of those “fresh eyes” looks at state government by Brownback. This one might work…
An update to last week’s column about the upcoming primary election in Kansas:
While the Kansas GOP constitution allows only voters who have declared their party affiliation as Republican prior to the close of the voter registration rolls to participate in a Republican primary, state law allows unaffiliated registered voters to declare at a primary election voting site their GOP party affiliation and get a Republican ballot, GOP officials said.
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